Jesse Nolte once had a federal firearms license so he could legally sell guns. As a younger man, he competed in cowboy action shooting contests – shooting pistol, rifle, and shotgun in quick succession – which he calls “lots of fun.”
But Friday may be a highlight of his gun-carrying career.
The Pittsburgh native was awaiting President Trump’s speech here at the 2017 NRA Annual Meetings and Exhibits in downtown Atlanta – the first time a sitting president has addressed the chief gun lobby since President Ronald Reagan in 1983.
With Mr. Trump already rolling back Obama-era gun regulations, Mr. Nolte says the National Rifle Association has gone from playing defense to offense. “They’re flying high,” he says.
As for himself, however, he says this may be his last convention.
He's in part looking for a break from a lifetime of focusing on guns. But most important, Nolte says he is for the first time confronting a paradox brought into focus by last year's election: Many of his own beliefs about gun safety don’t jibe with the NRA’s “go for broke” political strategy. He, for example, would support expanded background checks, as well as limits on people with mental illnesses purchasing weapons.
Most of all, he says, he doesn't like the idea of being “fleeced” by the organization’s fund-raising, some $30 million of which went into backing Trump in the 2016 election.
The hesitation of people like Nolte, gun policy experts say, underscores the fact that American gun owners are not always in lock step with the NRA. In fact, one new poll shows that a majority of gun owners do not support some of the gun lobby’s more aggressive positions, including legalizing silencers and getting rid of gun-free zones around schools.
“The NRA talks about broadening its base and spreading guns more broadly into society, so [Trump’s speech] would seem like a great marketing and political opportunity,” says Bob Spitzer, a political science professor and gun culture expert at the State University of New York, Cortland. “But I would put big question marks around this idea of normalization and diversification of gun culture. Yes, that is the NRA’s goal and drive: to press as many guns into as many hands as possible. But if you look at the long-term change, it’s not clear that they’re really being successful in terms of actually increasing the percentage of nontraditional gun owners carrying and using guns.”
Nevertheless, as perhaps 80,000 Americans descend on Atlanta, Trump is headlining the conference at a time of unprecedented success for the gun lobby and its political capital.
Concealed-carry permits have gone from 2 million to 15 million in the past two decades. The Pew Research Center last year found an uptick since 2014 in people who self-report gun ownership.
Georgia is part of this shift toward more permissive gun rights, primarily in states that vote (or can swing) Republican. Here, NRA members now can legally carry in churches, bars, and even at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, the world’s busiest tarmac.
Trump already has unraveled some Obama-era regulations on guns. He backs making it easier to buy silencers, and has put his support behind an NRA-backed bill that would federalize concealed-carry rules, something now handled individually by states.
And Trump's appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court is seen by NRA supporters as a boon for new constitutional reviews of gun measures.
At the same time, there is also evidence that the appeal of guns has broadened beyond Republican men. For example, 58 percent of Americans say gun ownership does more to protect people from crime than put people at risk.
The Liberal Gun Club, an educational and social group, reports a 10 percent increase in membership since Trump’s election. Democratic candidate Rob Quist in Montana has crafted a number of advertisements featuring guns. As many as one out of four people who identify as Democrats own guns, according to recent surveys.
“You know who decides what normal is?” NRA broadcaster Colion Noir said recently, in support of making it easier to buy silencers. “The people with the loudest voice.” Mr. Noir, who is African-American, represents what many see as a new breed of gun owners.
Yet the average NRA member still looks a lot like the average Trump voter – a lot like Mike Fitz, in fact.
Mr. Fitz, a white gun owner and retired firefighter from New York, says, “We’re still mostly older white guys who have lived long enough to realize that cops aren’t going to be there when you most need them, but your gun is.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge for an emboldened NRA is that most Americans – even gun owners like Nolte and Fitz – aren't necessarily in lockstep with what are perceived by many as extreme measures, including ending gun-free zones, such as around schools. Perhaps in reflection of that, sponsors called the silencer bill “The Hearing Protection Act.”
A poll released this week by Americans for Responsible Solutions, which promotes greater gun safety, suggests that the NRA is out of step with gun owners on issues ranging from silencers to gun-free zones. For example, 88 percent of gun owners surveyed support requiring people who want to carry concealed firearms to obtain a permit, and only 24 percent wanted silencers deregulated.
Another study found that of the 90 percent of Trump supporters who prioritize gun rights, 74 percent also favor expanded background checks – something the NRA has fought against.
As for the gun-buying boom? Without a Democrat in the White House – which gunmakers and shop owners used to spur sales – Americans are buying fewer guns, meaning gun manufacturers are scaling back production.
At the same time, fully half of Americans live in states that have enacted major gun regulations in Obama era. That gives incentive to the NRA to keep fighting, says Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the UCLA School of Law.
“No, we are not at peak gun,” says Mr. Winkler, author of “Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.” “The courts have yet to address the biggest issues in gun politics today – the right to carry outside your house, what kind of permits can be placed on such activity, and whether bans on assault weapons and high-capacity magazines are constitutional.”
At the Georgia World Congress Center, gun enthusiasts could find the latest tactical gear, see concerts by country music stars, and people-watch for celebrities.
For many gun owners, the annual NRA trek “is like church, a pilgrimage,” says Nolte. And despite his own misgivings, he expects the voices of Americans with guns on their hips to remain influential.
“The NRA plays the long game,” he says. “They know that even Trump could turn on you.”